Federal Court in Pennsylvania to Decide Death Benefits Dispute Involving a Surviving Same-Sex Spouse

A death benefits dispute between a surviving same-sex spouse and the decedent’s parents took center stage on Monday, March 12th, when U.S. District Court Judge C. Darnell Jones II of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania heard oral arguments from the attorneys for the parties.  This case is being closely watched across the nation because it is the first case in which a private employer has claimed that the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) prohibits it from providing equal benefits to same-sex spouses.  While the principal parties in the case – the surviving spouse, Jennifer Tobits, and the decedents’ parents, David and Joan Farley – both argued that the Court need not address the constitutionality of DOMA to resolve their dispute and instead, only analyze and interpret the language of the pension plan, the potential implications of the Court’s decision are momentous.  If the Court concludes that DOMA applies to the pension plan at issue, the ruling would result in a unprecedented extension of DOMA to private, non-governmental actors and jeopardize the rights of numerous private employees who are married to same-sex spouses and currently entitled to benefits under the private pension plans of countless employers, including small businesses, Fortune 500 companies, and law firms.  Teresa S. Renaker, one of Ms. Tobits’ attorneys, pointed out to the Court that any such application would be a “radical expansion of DOMA’s reach far beyond its intended public-sector scope and into private-sector employment.”

Ms. Tobits legally married Sarah Ellyn Farley in Canada in 2006, a mere two weeks before Ms. Farley was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.  After battling the disease together for four years, Ms. Farley died in 2010 at the age of 37.  After Ms. Farley’s death, Ms. Farley’s parents, who never approved of their daughter’s sexual orientation or her marriage to Ms. Tobits, attempted to collect Ms. Farley’s pension plan proceeds from her employer, Cozen O’Connor, a national law firm where Ms. Farley worked for six years as an attorney in its Chicago, Illinois, office.  Under Cozen O’Connor’s pension plan, a surviving spouse receives a deceased employee’s death benefit and “spouse” is defined in the plan as the person to whom an employee has been married for at least one year.  Nothing in the plan states that same-sex spouses are excluded.  Rather than paying the benefit to Ms. Tobits, Cozen O’Connor instead initiated this lawsuit, claimed that DOMA prevents it from paying the benefit to Ms. Tobits, and asked the Court to decide who is entitled to the benefit.  Because the Court asked the parties to address the constitutionality of DOMA in the context of resolving this dispute, two governmental entities intervened in the case – the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (“BLAG”) of the United States House of Representatives.  The DOJ contends that DOMA is unconstitutional and should be stricken, while BLAG defends DOMA.

Notably, during the pendency of this federal action, an Illinois state court ruled that Ms. Farley and Ms. Tobits were legally married in Canada and that Ms. Tobits is entitled to all of the rights and protections afforded to spouses under Illinois law.  This ruling resulted from a probate action filed by the Farleys after their daughter died in which the Farleys falsely claimed that their daughter was single and asked the court to appoint Ms. Farley’s father as the administrator of his daughter’s estate.  In reaching its decision, the Illinois court rejected the Farleys’ claims and appointed Ms. Tobits, the surviving spouse, as the administrator of Ms. Farley’s estate.

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